By Gail M. Aita
I must admit that I was having a very difficult time getting started writing this blog post. I really seemed to have a writer’s block and just couldn’t get going. Then I spoke with a dear friend named Annie and was telling her that I just couldn’t “jump into the pool” and get going. She very wisely told me, “When you are up on the diving board sometimes it is so difficult to just jump off. You may be afraid, it may be too high, and you may have difficulty swimming once you are in the pool. But, often it is more difficult and humiliating to turn around and climb off the board so you might as well jump in. It doesn’t matter if you do a swan dive, or a jack-knife, or even a belly-flop, just go for it. Jump into the pool of God’s amazing love. He is waiting to help you in whatever way you need.” And so, here I am, writing the post that God has put on my heart.
The title of this blog is “In Their Shoes;” I can’t help but be reminded of all the refugees and I wonder if we will ever be able to actually “walk in their shoes?” So much has been said about refugees these past months. However, I do not think that we will ever be able to stop dealing with the refugee situation both in our own country and around the world. Teaching in Myanmar and working with refugees from Myanmar here in the U.S. has changed my life. What makes someone a refugee? Fleeing persecution in one’s homeland because of the ravages of war, political persecution, ethnic persecution, or religious persecution qualifies someone for “refugee status” in the United States and in many other countries. People all over the world are fleeing their homes because they are being persecuted or are in fear of their lives. And yet many countries including the United States are closing their borders to the hungry, the lost, and the forgotten. They limit the number of foreigners allowed into their country when there are still millions who are waiting for a safe place—a refuge.
This week’s lectionary passages are all about the stranger. Leviticus 19:33-34 reminds us, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” In today’s political scene, we hear so much about closing our borders, building a wall, keeping people out, taking care of our own first when, in reality, Isaiah 25:4 speaks to us today: “You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat.”
Zephaniah 3:14-15 states, “Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.” Refugees do rejoice because they have come to a land where they have heard there is religious freedom, where they can worship as they choose, where they are free to get an education, where they will not be persecuted because they are different. But it is sad to say that is not always the case. Sometimes there is a new enemy: those who do not welcome them, those who make fun of them and humiliate them because they are different. They need to find “someplace safe with somebody good.”* They need the protection of not only our laws but of loving, caring Christians, fellow believers.
Desmond Tutu once said “In the story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus declared that it ‘would be whether we fed or did not feed the hungry, whether we clothed or did not clothe the naked, whether we visited the imprisoned or not, which would say what our final destination will be.'” (Reformed Journal, Oct 1985, p. 13)
Some refugees today have waited 25-30 years to be able to return to their homeland. Many of their children have been born and raised in refugee camps, with no citizenship: children without a country. Where do they belong? Where are they welcomed? There are well over 15 million refugees around the world, unable to get jobs, without a permanent home, not belonging. They live in a country that does not speak their language, where the climate may be different, the food is different, and the culture is foreign. However, the reality of life as a Christian is that we are all refugees just waiting to go home to heaven.
It is the blessed Advent Season, we are called to “jump into the pool of God’s amazing love,” as my friend Annie had reminded me, and to share all that we have not only with those we love, but with the “foreigners” and with those who are in need. We are to teach our young women and girls the gift of sharing, the gift of giving, and God’s gift of Love. There is an old Jewish proverb that says, “Hospitality is a form of worship.” When we open our homes and hearts to the stranger, we are worshipping our God and King.
As we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I pray that we may be able to say to our sisters and brothers from other countries: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:4-7).
*With thanks to Jan Karon for her title Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good: The New Mitford Novel (Berkley, 2015).
Gail Aita serves as Coordinator of the Western Section of American Baptist Women’s Ministries. She and her husband Paul have spent six summers teaching at the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma).